By Israel Drazin
Bible readers need to realize that the division of the Bible into chapters and verses is frequently illogical, leading some readers to think that the person or persons who divided the text into chapters and verses was drunk. Take, for example, the very onset of the Bible. Chapter 1 tells the story of the origin of creation in seven days. Yet the events of the seventh day, which belong in chapter 1, are in verses 1 to 3 of chapter 2. Chapter 2 verse 4 begins a totally different narrative and verse 4, or part of it, as we will discuss below, should have been the opening of chapter 2.
Similarly, the story of Abraham begins in 11:27, which should be the opening of chapter 12 because this section in chapter 11 gives essential introductory information about the patriarch.
What is the history of the chapter and verse division, 929 chapters and 23,145 verses?
The ancient Hebrew Bible was not divided into chapters and verses. As far as we can tell, the Bible was written in continuous lines with no division between words or verses, as other ancient documents. Later, the words were separated and sections were divided in two ways: some sections only had a space before the next paragraph which began on the same line. Others were separated from the following section, which began on a separate line. The former smaller separation indicates the end of what we would call today “paragraphs.” The later are similar to chapter endings. Neither the divisions nor verses were numbered.
We find this type of division in the book of Isaiah that was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls composed before 67 CE.
The Five Books of Moses was later divided into 154 sections so that it could be read each week and finished in three years, a practice that existed in Israel, but was later discontinued. It was also divided into 54 sections (parashat hashavua) so that it could be read in its entirety in a single year, the ancient practice in Babylon, and the current practice today.
In the thirteenth century, there were debates between Jews and Christians concerning God, religion, and the Bible. The debaters were unable to refer to the chapter they were discussing because the chapters had no numbers. As a result, the Christians divided the Bible into numbered chapters, apparently often too quickly and without proper thought. The Jews recognized that the numbered chapters could also help them when they wanted to discuss a particular part of Scripture with a coreligionist, so they adopted the Christian division generally, but with a few exceptions.
It took several centuries, until the sixteenth century, when the idea was extended to include numbering the verses. This numbering is also frequently faulty. Sometimes two ideas (sentences) are put into a single verse. At other times the end of the idea is improperly placed in the following verse. For example, many scholars say that the first half of Genesis 2:4 belongs with verses 1-3 in chapter 1 (“These are the generations of the heaven and earth when they were created”), and the second half of 2:4 should have been placed as the introduction to chapter 2 as part of the current verse 5 (“In the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven” should be part of the next verse “no shrub of the field was yet on the earth,” etc.).